I recently had an old acquaintance contact me after 33 years. It took me several hours to remember who she was. She, on the other hand, had never stopped thinking about me. She got married, had two kids, and 25 years later went through a divorce. Five years before he left, she told me, her husband asked if she’d like him to look me up for her. Apparently, I’d been the topic of conversation for quite some time, dividing a marriage I barely knew existed.
As life has a way of doing to most childhood relationships, she and I went our separate ways. We both ran from our pasts, but in opposite directions. I closed off relationships; she never let go of the one relationship that made her feel safe. She nurtured it until it became its own entity, evolving into an event that never really happened.
I know it sounds a bit creepy. It’s creepy to me. But is it unusual? Well, yes, a little. Still, it’s not too far from how many of us live our lives. We hold on to memories of past lovers, friendships or experiences to the point that we can’t enjoy the friends or relationships we have. We never get to the place we want to be because we never leave the place we’ve been.
For 20 years I hid from my past. I was ashamed of the fact that I couldn’t live up to the ideals I so firmly espoused at the time. I wasn’t ready to rethink my draconian beliefs. Rather than acknowledge my perceived failures I isolated myself. Antisocial people tend to get a little weird. I was no exception. I started to believe people felt and thought about me the way I felt and thought about myself: I was a failure. I became mentally ill and clinically depressed.
Past experiences tend to fall into two extreme categories: exhilarating or humiliating. Sure, we have a lot of other experiences along the way, but we seldom remember those. I was thrilled the day I brought home my first Sonicare Toothbrush, but that event didn’t make it into my memoir. On the other hand, the many occurrences I had of feeling embarrassed did. We can’t avoid those experiences, nor can we easily forget them. When we meet new friends we often wonder what we should let them know about us. Perhaps, it’s not about what we should or should not say, but how to integrate our past experiences into our present.
Shame is not an option
Maya Angelou is famous for saying, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” I’m all for taking responsibility for our actions, but many of us carry shame for behaviors from the past, though we did the best we could at the time.
One day I was driving my children to school when my youngest daughter, seemingly unprovoked, turned into a raving maniac because she didn’t have any Chap Stick with her. She hurled insults at her sister, me, and even her mother who wasn’t in the car. As we pulled into the school parking lot I threatened to yank her out of the back seat and spank her in front of everyone. She burst into tears. For the next several minutes we sat together talking. I realized that her anguish had nothing to do with Chap Stick and everything to do with her view of where she felt she fit, or didn’t fit, in the family.
Our interactions with others are often motivated by underlying, and frequently indiscernible, feelings of inadequacy, fear, or unmet needs. Shame from our past actions – or sometimes just feelings – keep us from relating to others. Shame gives us the impression we don’t belong, or fit in. Part of putting our past in perspective is sharing with others the deep things that have caused us so much shame in the first place. No doubt it’s a risk, but not talking about our perceived mistakes can be the difference between moving forward and not moving at all.
When I started telling my story I began receiving messages and emails on a daily basis from people who said, “Me, too!” Dr. Brene Brown called those two words the most powerful words we can hear when we’re struggling to face our shame. “Empathy,” she said in her TED Talk, “is the antidote to shame.” Acknowledging our shame and mistakes removes the negative power from our past and more frequently than not, we find people ready and willing to say, “Me, too.”
Become one with yourself
Becoming one with yourself is not a metaphysical euphemism, but it’s wholly integrating who you are with where you’ve been, what you’ve done and ALL of the things that make you uniquely you.
The pieces of my life seemed forever disparate and I felt I had to pick one. I am an American Indian, though I look like your average white guy. As a white guy, I traveled and played keyboards for black choirs in black churches. I was born and raised in a conservative Christian, Republican home. I was married to a woman for six and a half years and I have two biological daughters. I am gay and now engaged to be married to a man, though I was once a leader in the reparative therapy, ex-gay movement.. I am still an ordained Evangelical Christian minister. Most importantly, I am one person blessed with the richness of life’s experiences and different perspectives. It took years to embrace the entire journey, but when I did, I moved out of hiding and into deep, meaningful relationships.
I had to write an email to my old friend who was looking to pick up where we left off. “My life is full and fulfilled,” I told her. I wasn’t looking to rekindle a past with someone I could barely remember. I have no need to go back. I have nothing to resolve and nothing to hide.
I’ve discovered that our pasts are merely experiences cloaked in emotions we’ve given to their memories. If our past holds power over us, it’s because we have relinquished control of the present. It’s really our decision to stay trapped in the past, run from it, or let it empower our future.